Wiggins completes Great Britain’s cycling renaissance

First British Tour winner hits the apex of GB cycling history, but Sky boss won't reflect until he's through the London Games

PARIS, France (VN) — Bradley Wiggins helped complete a cycling renaissance for Great Britain Sunday in Paris with his historic Tour de France win.

“What chance does a kid have in Central London to grow up and win the Tour?” Wiggins asked on Saturday. “It’s been an incredible road, being in the British setup. They saw me grow on the road, but get married, have kids, win the gold medal and today, when I won the Tour.”

Wiggins connected the dots in British cycling’s re-birth, from his track gold medals in Athens and Beijing to his Tour win on Sunday, and did so in a purely British project, Sky.

“It’s got everything to do with the Olympic program and lottery funding,” David Millar explained. “Sky is a purely British thing. Brad is part of that system, he crossed over from the French teams into that system.”

Millar (Garmin-Sharp) has watched Sky since its birth and the lost Wiggins to the team two years ago. He’ll re-join the Londoner this week to represent Great Britain at the London Olympics. The squad, which includes four Tour stage winners in Wiggins, Millar, Mark Cavendish and Chris Froome (Sky), and British champion Ian Stannard (Sky), will enter the Games as the overwhelming favorite for road race gold and with a real shot at winning the time trial as well.

“My first Tour was in 1994. When I was covering cycling then, British cycling was a joke. If someone said to me a Brit would win the Tour…” The Times of London journalist, Jeremy Whittle told VeloNews. “I remember when [Sean] Yates got the yellow jersey that year. I asked a question in English; everyone looked at me and gave me the eye like I shouldn’t have done it.”

Life was difficult for Brits before Peter Keen and David Brailsford re-vamped British track cycling with the help of National Lottery funds. Top British riders like Tom Simpson and Robert Millar had to make their way through French teams and had little support from their home country before the 1990s.

The track program gave Wiggins focus as he fumbled through road races with Francaise des Jeux, Crédit Agricole and Cofidis. It led him to individual and team pursuit gold medals, and to eventually finish the Tour fourth overall in 2009 before leaving Garmin one year early to spearhead Sky’s debut in 2010.

Keen and Brailsford also gave the go-ahead in late 2003 for Rod Ellingworth to start the cycling academy, a nurturing ground for young Brits. Cavendish was one of Ellingworth’s original six students. He and others, like Stannard and Geraint Thomas, went through the academy and joined the pro ranks.

Brailsford, after a haul of eight medals in Beijing, wanted to take British cycling to a new level. Sky, which already sponsored track cycling, announced in February 2009 its new road team with Brailsford at the helm. The goals were simple: to promote cycling and win the Tour within five years with a British rider. Brailsford only needed three.

“I’ve always liked to under-promise and over-deliver, that’s been my thought process,” Brailsford told VeloNews. “I got egged on in the Sky thing [in our first year] and I sounded arrogant, which I didn’t like, but I was very comfortable with the fact that we could win the Tour in five years time with a British winner. It was based on evidence, thinking and facts.”

He got it right. Wiggins’ Tour win is bigger than Cavendish’s 23 stage wins, the previous Brits who wore yellow and Chris Boardman’s hour record. It is quite possibly one of Great Britain’s biggest sporting accomplishments.

“It’s obviously the pinnacle of British cycling achievements, hands down and miles above anything else that’s been achieved,” Whittle said.

He and his colleagues are debating its place in British sport.

“We were talking about (Roger) Gilbert Bannister’s four-minute mile back in the 1950s, Tony Jacklin when he won the U.S. Open. People are comparing [the Tour win] to 1966, when we won the football World Cup. That was accepted as the most Golden day in the history of British sport.”

If Wiggins goes on to help Cavendish win the Olympic road race in London and wins the time trial gold medal, then his achievement would certainly eclipse any other. It’s something that the Tour’s first Brits, Charles Holland and Bill Burl, would have found impossible to imagine in 1937.

“I haven’t even had time to think about the meaning,” Brailsford continued. “I spend my time at night planning our training to make sure we are ready for the Olympics. After the Olympics, I’ll have time to stop and think about what we’ve done here.”

There will be a lot to think about.